China may manufacture and export many things in an increasingly globalized world, but animation does not seem to be one of them. Japanese animation is a well-known quantity, and Korea is growing as an animation outsourcing destination and for a growing amount of original content. However, China’s modern animation industry seems to be rather moribund, requiring some rather preposterous sounding laws to mandate its domestic survival.
This was not always the case. The Shanghai Animation Film Studio led a golden age of Chinese animation between the 1950’s and the 1980’s, creating a marvelous body of work in hand-drawn, paper-cut, and stop-motion animation. In August 2005, the studio released a DVD containing four short films to commemorate the birthday of Te Wei (特偉, pronounced like “Teh Way”), one of the studio’s master animators. Mr. Te combines flawless cartooning techniques with Chinese artistic influences to produce distinctively Chinese animation. While the DVD may be a bit hard to find, it is a gold mine of fresh, original, and compelling works that showcase an unsung master of animation.
The first short on the disc is “The Conceited General” (驕傲的將軍, Jiao’ao de Jiangjun), made in 1956. After a victorious military campaign, a general returns home to glory and prosperity. His own arrogance and the prodding of a sycophantic vizier ultimately lead to ruin, first for the general’s own martial prowess and then for the nation as a whole. The heavy influence of Walt Disney is easily visible in the character designs, the movement of the characters, and the storytelling sensibilities. However, even at this early stage, the influences of Chinese culture and art are visible. The general’s design and the musical accompaniment are both clearly lifted from Beijing Opera. The clothing, architecture, and props are all recognizably Chinese, down to the ceremonial bronze vessels that the general drinks his wine from. This is the only short on the disc that makes heavy use of dialogue and the English subtitles are passable, although they translate the exclamation “ai-ya!” into English using an obscenity that would never be heard in a Disney cartoon. The only serious criticism to be leveled at this short is that it runs a bit longer than is necessary. It usually becomes clear where a scene is going about 2 or 3 minutes before it finally ends, making its roughly 23-minute running time feel a little padded.
The next short, 1960’s “Where is Mamma?” (小蝌蚪找媽媽, Xiao Kedou Zhao Mama, download RealMedia video clip), maintains the Disney influence thematically, but is a world away from “The Conceited General” visually. This is the first of the four shorts to use the Chinese ink painting of artist Qi Baishi as a style guide, looking less like stereotypical animation and more like a museum painting come to life. Indeed, the visual novelty of the short is largely what recommends it, since the story is a relatively simple-minded affair. The film focuses on a cloud of newly born tadpoles seeking their missing mother through an oddly predator-free world. They mistake a succession of animals for mother, garnering a new clue about their mother’s appearance from each misunderstanding. A pleasant narrator explains the on-screen events slowly and clearly, making this film an excellent means of practicing elementary Chinese. The short film is clearly aimed at very young children, with the comforting view of nature borrowed from the Disney nature films of old.
However, the visuals of this film are never less than stunning. Once the novelty of the artistic style wears off, one can truly appreciate the incredible artistry that went into the film. It is challenging enough to paint a translucent shrimp using Chinese ink painting techniques. Animating two of them smoothly at 24 frames a second without varying the weight of the inks requires an astonishing level of technical virtuosity. The surface simplicity of the film masks a deceptive complexity. More than anything, this film is a triumph of technique, but Mr. Te was just getting warmed up.
It is with “The Cowboy’s Flute” (牧笛, Mu Di, download RealMedia video clips) that Te’s style steps confidently away from Walt Disney and becomes fully and assertively his own. Made in 1963, this film uses even more beautiful and detailed Chinese ink paintings to depict the charming relationship between a young cow herding boy with extraordinary flute playing skills and his faithful water buffalo. The boy falls asleep in a tree, and is soon dreaming that he has lost his buffalo. The dream sequence is delightfully whimsical, beginning with falling leaves that turn into butterflies and gradually lead the cow herder to a beautiful mist-filled valley. Here, the cow herder finally discovers his wayward animal, but the buffalo outright refuses to budge from his hiding spot, leaving the cow herder to find an alternate (and far more musical) solution to his problem.
“The Cowboy’s Flute” eschews dialogue completely, opting to tell its story entirely through the animation and the accompanying music, making it entirely accessible to a non-Chinese speaking audience. The melding of the aural and visual experiences is nearly flawless, and the painted settings are far more grandiose and ambitious than those in “Where is Mamma?” The closing montage of visuals features great flocks of birds, all painted in different ink painting styles, while the music builds to a crescendo. The effect is so dazzling that it comes as a surprise when the boy awakens from his dream at the end of the film.
There is a 25-year gap between “The Cowboy’ Flute” and “Feeling from Mountain and Water” (山水情, Shan Shui Qing), due to Mr. Te’s exile from the studio during the Cultural Revolution. However, the hardships Mr. Te endured clearly did little to diminish his artistic skills. Titled after a phrase for landscape painting, this short film tells a simple tale of an impoverished and elderly scholar and a young girl who cares for him briefly in return for zither lessons. Any still from the movie would serve as a beautiful painting in its own right, but this would utterly lose the charm of the astonishingly beautiful animation and the deeply moving musical accompaniment. While “The Cowboy’s Flute” is a gentle and lighthearted film, “Feelings from Mountain and Water” is steeped with melancholy, perhaps expressing the impact of his experiences during the Cultural Revolution.
This last film uses no dialogue because there is no need for it. It bypasses language to tap into an emotional depth that can’t be reached through spoken words. The majority of the film features a beautiful zither accompaniment, but some of the most moving moments of the film unfold purely through the image to the sound of rushing winds or total silence. The emotional impact of the film is undeniable. This is a genuine masterpiece of animation on every level.
The image quality of the movies on this disc is uniformly excellent. “The Conceited General” is the only exception, although it is not entirely clear if this is due to deterioration of the source material or poor production values in the original. The sound quality is less than impressive, with occasional pops and scratches in the soundtrack. There are no extras to speak of on the disc other than your choice of English or Chinese (simplified and traditional) subtitles.
This DVD should be easily available in any major city in China and probably in Taiwan as well, although getting it outside those areas may be a bit more challenging. However, the disc is regionless, so it should be compatible with any NTSC-compatible DVD player. This on-line store seems to be exporting it for about $10—a steep markup from its Chinese price of $2.50—although they charge rather stiff shipping fees. Nevertheless, fans of animation, Chinese art, or both owe it to themselves to seek out this DVD.
Note: since the DVD menus are entirely in Chinese, the following screen capture will show non-Chinese readers how to read the menus and turn on the English subtitles:
The DVD menu items are, from left to right, “Play All,” “Scene Selection,” and “Subtitles.” A white ceremonial bi disk will appear to the left of the current selection. When you select “Subtitles,” the option for English subtitles will be the only one written in English.The thread view count is